I have a heavy clay soil and have been rototilling ever since I was a
kid, but now I wonder how that fits in with modern "no-till" ideas. I
did create a small trial plot where I applied a huge amount of mulch,
and it creates a dilemma, because you still get the weeds but you also
have a lot of earthworms that rototilling would chop up. It is not
practical to hand work large areas with a fork unless that is all you
ever want to do in your life, so I wonder what practical methods are
I suggest you look at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-dig_gardening
and any other sites that can be found using "no dig gardening" as your
search phrase. Then I would be glad to answer any questions you have.
I've be doing it for about 6 years.
My soil started out as clay, which is not a completely bad thing, as
clay holds moisture and nutrients, and keeps them from being washed away.
I'd suggest that you try to adjust your gardening beds to about 30%
sand, and 5% organic material. Work it in by hand or roto-tiller, and
then forget about digging after that. Even this step isn't necessary but
it will speed up the transformation of your garden soil.
You may also be interested in "A Farm for A Future" which comes in 5
parts. The first two set up the problem, and the last three address it.
It's main purpose is to simplify farming/gardening by gardening smarter,
which requires fewer amendments (inputs).
Also "Polyface Farm"
Mostly, it comes down to growing dirt, and then letting the dirt grow
I have heavy clay soil that is very hard to work. I ripped it once when I
established the garden and not since. In made beds I turn in soil
ammendments by hand and it is no great effort (I am not a young man nor
super-fit) as the soil there has been broken down from the base clay and I
only turn the top 20cm or so maybe once a year or two. At other times I
just lay mulch or manure on top and rake it a little. It has many worms but
I turn quite gently so few worms are damaged. Aside from harming the worms
there is other damage caused by frequent tilling. There is no need at all
to be constantly tilling your soil whether it is clay or otherwise. You
should have no need of frequent rotatiling.
Creating holes in the soil with a broadfork (or pitchfork if you don't
have one) just before sheet mulching with manure/cardboard/straw really
helps. Makes a big difference and makes all the little soil critters
like many gardening answers the area where you
live and the weather conditions make a difference.
mulching clay too soon in the spring in a cool
climate will keep the soil cold longer. some
plants like that, others don't. worms are fine
with cool and wet, etc.
the best results in the clay here have come
from working in well rotted wood chips or
shredded bark. depth varies depending upon
what will be planted in that space next. i
also bury other organic materials too as they
become available and if a garden is in between
plantings or done for the season. all hand
dug with a spade and the clumps are not broken
apart much other than if i am planting small
seeds and need a fine tilth seed bed. larger
seeds that need an inch or more of cover do
ok in a more clumpy seed bed.
the last time i tilled an area was three years
ago, it was hard and dry and i wanted to level
the area. not too many worms if any in that
as it was too dry, they all went deeper. after
leveling i reseeded with alfalfa and birdsfoot
trefoil and use that as a green manure source
for gardens and the worm farm.
i find i have much less hand work to do if i
plant cover crops which help keep the weed
count down and keep the soil active. bare dirt
is something i don't like to see any longer in
a garden for long. with so many peas and beans
that i like it is easy to fill a space quickly
or buckwheat will take a bare spot and turn it
green in a few weeks time. nice wide leaves
and the bees love the flowers. turn that
under or chop it and plant right into the
stubble. the alfafa and birdsfoot trefoil
will seed areas to cover, but until it gets
established weeding is needed. oh well, the
weeds are good worm food too.
that last sentence has changed much of my
attitude about weeding. i used to hate it.
now i get out with a nice comfy pillow to sit
on and listen to the birds and windchimes and
can think about whatever. problem weeds or
roots i'll dry out well before recycling.
most weeds won't survive being uprooted if
dried out on the surface, so i leave them
in place if it is a sunny day. if it will
be raining i'll keep them aside and dry
them later. they feed worms either way,
outside or for the worm farm inside. i also
pile weeds around the rhubarb. not many
manage to regrow after being smothered by
rhubarb. and if they do, i get 'em again
Bird is correct that mulching will reduce water evaporation, and cool
your soil, but the mulch is also there to feed the mirco-critters in
your soil. It is their life cycles of excreting, and dying that enrich
the soil and feed your plants. I'm on the north side of a hill, and it
takes time for my soil to naturally heat up to 60F (15C) where most of
my plants become active. To over come the cooling of the mulch, I cover
the beds with clear plastic, that is used by painters to cover floors
(available in hardware stores everywhere). Cover the edges and your soil
will be heated. This works best with drip irrigation under the plastic.
Which is initially a pain in the wazoo, but will make watering for at
least the next 5 years very easy, and less time consuming.
I don't plant seeds in mulch. Too many little leaf eating varmints,
including those cute little rolly-pollies, use it for cover. I mulch
after the plants are established. In plant in mulch with small plants
using a dibble to punch a hole in the mulched, newspapered, amended,
prepared soil. All those activities use much less energy than spading
your soil, and cheaper and less hassel that renting a roto-tiller.
Dibbles that I've seen in gardening centers are too small for my staring
plants which come out of 72/tray cells. These slide into the hole with
little problem. I prefer to use a shove handle that has been sharpened
at one end. In case of a 4" X 4" pot, just cut an X in the plastic over
the drip emitter. Scrape out a hole, and cover the X with dirt when done.
Was just planting some peas, and when I pushed on the dibble, the worms
came wriggling to the surface.
Sounds good :O)
I'd use bird's method for a bed that is already in use, but for an empty
bed, it is so much easier to cut the weeds back to an inch or so, add
your amendments, cover with newsprint (most newspapers [which are mostly
infortainment these days] use a soy based dye, but you may want to check
with the paper), cover all with mulch, and wet with hose. I like to do
this 6 weeks in advance, but have sometimes done it 2 weeks in advance.
(Initially the paper may present a problem of getting water to penetrate
exactly where you want it [which is another good reason to use drip],
but the paper deteriorates quickly enough in a few weeks.)
Add amendments, then newspaper, then mulch, then drip line, then
painters plastic, and then cover plastic edges with dirt.
I have TERRIBLE clay - not really soil, you can literally throw pots
Years ago, I tried "double-digging" it - the whole dig up a row, fill
with compost, put the soil back on top back-breaking toil. In very
short time, no trace that that had ever been done. So, years ago, I
admitted that "fixing" the "soil" was a hopeless task. I now treat it
more-or-less as an urban garden on concrete or a rooftop would - I pile
horse manure (ideally well-composted, some years are more ideal than
others) wherever I want a garden bed, and plant in it. Blueberries are
the sole exception - them, I pile all the pine needles available around.
I have lots of worms. In theory the worms would be making holes (I
suppose they must) and mixing things into the clay (no sign of that
within an inch or two of the compost/clay interface, which is not hard
to find even years later - the stuff is _hopeless_.)
I was just doing some bed-rearranging and setting up melon/squash beds,
where I went down the the clay interface (piling the compost on another
bed), broke the top of the clay up with a "garden claw" hand tool that I
find works on it about as fast as the tiller, with less hassle (the
tiller keeps claying-up and needs to be scraped clean), and laid a 12"
layer of not very aged horse manure on the clay, which gets followed up
with the compost that's been there for a while longer and is pretending
to be "soil" in my garden. I figure squash are always happiest growing
in the compost heap, so why not give them what they want?
The clay was its usual unaffected self - concrete-like when dry, slimy
when wet, not resembling anything you'd want in a garden at all, ever.
This is perhaps 10-12 years on in this part of the garden. It might be a
bit browner for an inch - below that it's the usual gray color. It's had
compost and lime (even some gypsum and greensand) flung at it for a
decade or more, and it doesn't care.
For my garden and purposes, hauled-in horse manure is the only reason I
can grow anything - locally-produced compost makes up a trivial part of
my overall, vast, compost use.
In any case, I rarely if ever till the beds. I also don't walk on them.
Most weeds pull right out quite easily, as they have not got themselves
rooted down in to the awful clay, and the uncompacted compost has not
got the holding power that the clay does.
If I cared to spend money on it (I don't) I might try adding (ON TOP of
the horse manure) a large amount of sand (and mix that with more horse
manure) but I can haul horse manure for the price of gas and my time
shovelling, while sand costs me real money. Plus, many sources claim
that it's too easy to get worse concrete-like "soil" when adding sand to
clay (rather than vice versa) though I have talked with someone who did
it (mixed with an equal amount of manure at time of application) and has
had a few years of success with that. I've done a small amount on a
single bed to get carrots to pretend to be happy a few times.
My horse manure is non-Eliot-Coleman-approved - normal stuff bedded with
wood shavings/chips since straw costs MORE than hay around here, and
I've only ever seen straw bedding right around the time there was a
newborn colt at the farm I usually haul from. Straw is nice, but it
ain't happening without someone spending a lot of extra money. While not
ideal, this works anyway, and if given adequate time (too often I can't
manage that either, at the rate I go through it - other than, it gets
there in place on the garden, eventually) it breaks down into perfectly
Cats, coffee, chocolate...vices to live by
Please don't feed the trolls. Killfile and ignore them so they will go away.
whenever we compare our yields and results
with the people around us who have sandier
soil we always do better. clay might have
some tough aspects, but i would not want to
replace it with sandy loam for all the
gardens -- a few for root veggies, ok.
there are many species of worms, some don't
go down very far. look into finding species
in your area which work more deeply. night
crawlers can go down very deep, but there are
others that work in the 6inch to 2feet range.
also, planting deep rooted perennials and
treating them as if they are being grazed a
few times a season will improve the biological
activity of the soil. i try to keep a few
of these plants in a garden as they can also
act as a host for beneficial bugs for the
times when surrounding plants are not. when
the garden plants are growing then trimming
the alfalfa provides a nice green manure and
keeps it from outgrowing the garden veggies.
gradually moving these plants around (letting
them reseed nearby and then chopping off the
old plant) makes deep root channels for garden
veggies or worms. the deep roots also help
bring up nutrients from below.
digging in fine grained organic materials
will help some, but digging in coarser materials
like wood chips, charcoal and plant stems seems
to do a very good job here. and the area
that i fired to make charcoal last season was
a great improvement. making me wish i had
a lot more wood to burn to turn into charcoal
and the bits of surrounding clay that changed
texture too. very nice material to work with
even when dripping wet it did not stick to the
shovel like the surrounding regular clayey soil
the only thing i would wonder about with your
setup is surface water contamination. by using
compost on the surface and not digging it in
much then a heavy rain could mean nutrient
runoff into a ditch, stream, pond, lake, etc.
burying compost at least keeps the nutrients
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